A ROMANCE OF THE MOONSTONE CANON TRAIL
WITH ILLUSTRATIONS BY ANTON FISCHER
GROSSET & DUNLAP PUBLISHERS
COPYRIGHT, 1914, BY HOUGHTON MIFFLIN COMPANY
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED
To I. J. K.
THE ROAD xi I. THE PROSPECTOR 3 II. WATER 10 III. RAGGED ROMANCE 14 IV. "ANY ROAD, AT ANY TIME, FOR ANYWHERE" 25 V. "CAN HE RIDE?" 39 VI. ADVOCATE EXTRAORDINARY 48 VII. THE GIRL WHO GLANCED BACK 60 VIII. THE TEST 72 IX. A CELESTIAL ENTERPRISE 88 X. "PERFECTLY HARMLESS LITTLE OLE TENDERFOOT" 98 XI. DESERT LAW 110 XII. "FOOL'S LUCK" 125 XIII. THE RETURN 132 XIV. "CALL IT THE 'ROSE GIRL'" 141 XV. SILENT SAUNDERS 157 XVI. BLUNDER 163 XVII. GUESTS 177 XVIII. A RED EPISODE 185 XIX. "TO CUT MY TRAIL LIKE THAT" 202 XX. THE LED HORSE 211 XXI. BORROWED PLUMES 223 XXII. THE YUMA COLT 231 XXIII. SILENT SAUNDERS SPEAKS 247 XXIV. "LIKE SUNSHINE" 254 XXV. IN THE SHADOW OF THE HILLS 262 XXVI. SPECIAL 273 XXVII. THE RIDERS 278 XXVIII. GOPHERTOWN 288 XXIX. TOLL 299 XXX. TWO ROSES 305 XXXI. NIGHT 320 XXXII. MORNING 332 XXXIII. A SPEECH 345
OVERLAND LIMITED! (page 123) Frontispiece THE GIRL'S LEVEL GRAY EYES STUDIED THE TRAMP'S FACE 16 "IT'S A CLEAN-UP" 296 "CAN'T I HAVE ANOTHER ONE, ROSE GIRL?" 340
Through the San Fernando Valley, toward the hills of Calabasas runs that old road, El Camino Real of the early Mission days.
And now replicas of old Mission bells, each suspended in solitary dignity from a rusted iron rod, mark intervals along the dusty way, once a narrow trail worn by the patient feet of that gentle and great padre, Junipero Serra,—a trail from the San Gabriel Valley to the shores of Monterey. A narrow trail then, but, even then, to him it was broad in its potential significance of the dawn of Grace upon the mountain shores of Heaven's lost garden, California.
Not far from one iron-posted bell in the valley, El Camino Real falters, to find, eventually, a lazy way round the low foothills, as though reluctant to lift its winding length over the sharp pitch of the Canajo Pass, beyond.
Near this lone bell another road, an offspring of old El Camino Real, runs quickly from its gray and patient sire. Branching south in hurried turns and multiple windings it climbs the rolling hills, ever dodging the rude-piled masses of rock, with scattered brush between, but forever aspiring courageously through the mountain sage and sunshine toward its ultimate green rest in the shadowy hills.
In the sweet sage is the drone of bees, like the hum of a far city. The thinning, acrid air is tinged with the faint fragrance of sunburnt shrubs and grasses.
With the sinuous avoidings of a baffled snake the road turns and turns upon itself until its earlier promise of high adventuring seems doubtful. As often as not it climbs a semi-barren dun stretch of sunbaked earth dotted with stubby cacti—passes these dwarfed grotesques, and attempts the narrowing crest of the canon-wall, to swing abruptly back to the cacti again, gaining but little in its upward trend.
Impatient, it finally plunges dizzily round a sharp, outstanding angle of rock and down into the unexpected enchantment of Moonstone Canon. Here the gaunt cliffs rise to great wild gardens, draped with soft rose and poignant red amid drowsy undertones of gray and green and gold. Dots of vivid colors flame and fade and pass to ledges of dank, vineclad rock and drifts of shale, as the road climbs again.
At the next turn are the indistinct voices of water, commingling in a monotone—and the road ceases to be, as the cool silver of a mountain stream cuts through it, with seemingly inconsequential meanderings, but with the soft arrogance of a power too great to be denied. And the indistinct voices, left behind, fade to unimaginable sounds as the stream patters down its gravelly course, contented beyond measure with its own adventuring.
Patiently the road takes up its way, moving in easier sweeps through a widening valley, but forever climbing.
Again and again, fetlock deep across it runs the stream, gently persistent and forever murmuring its happy soliloquies.
Here and there the road passes quickly through a blot of shade,—a group of wide-spreading live-oaks,—and reappears, gray-white and hot in the sun.
And then, its high ambition fulfilled, the road recovers from its last climbing sweep round the base of a shouldering hill and runs straight and smooth to its ultimate green rest in the shade of the sycamores. Beyond these two huge-limbed warders of the mountain ranch gate, there is a flower-bordered way, but it is the road no longer.
The mountain ranch takes its name from the canon below. It is the Moonstone Ranch, the home of Louise, whose ancestors, the Lacharmes, grew roses in old France.
Among the many riders to and from the ranch, there is one, a great, two-fisted, high-complexioned man, whose genial presence is ever welcome. He answers to many names. To the youngsters he is "Uncle Jack,"—usually with an exclamation. To some of the older folk he is "Mr. Summers," or "Jack." Again, the foreman of the Moonstone Ranch seldom calls him anything more dignified than "Red." Louise does sometimes call him—quite affectionately—"Overland."
For five years he had journeyed back and forth between the little desert station on the Mojave and the range to the north. The townspeople paid scant attention to him. He was simply another "desert rat" obsessed with the idea that gold was to be found in those northern hills. He bought supplies and paid grudgingly. No one knew his name.
The prospector was much younger than he appeared to be. The desert sun had dried his sinews and warped his shoulders. The desert wind had scrawled thin lines of age upon his face. The desert solitude had stooped him with its awesome burden of brooding silence.
Slowly his mind had been squeezed dry of all human interest save the recurrent memory of a child's face—that, and the poignant memory of the child's mother. For ten years he had been trying to forget. The last five years on the desert had dimmed the woman's visioned face as the child came more often between him and the memory of the mother, in his dreams.
Then there were voices, the voices of strange spirits that winged through the dusk of the outlands and hovered round his fire at night.
One voice, soft, insistent, ravished his imagination with visions of illimitable power and peace and rest. "Gold! Lost gold!" it would whisper as he sat by the meager flame. Then he would tremble and draw nearer the warmth. "Where?" he would ask, tempting the darkness as a child, fearfully certain of a reply.
Then another voice, cadenced like the soft rush of waves up the sand, would murmur, "Somewhere away! Somewhere away! Somewhere away!" And in the indefiniteness of that answer he found an inexplicable joy. The vagueness of "Somewhere away" was as vast with pregnant possibilities as his desert. His was the eternity of hope, boundless and splendid in its extravagant promises. Drunk with the wine of dreams, he knew himself to be a monarch, a monarch uncrowned and unattended, yet always with his feet upon the wide threshold of his kingdom.
Then would come the biting chill of night, the manifold rays of stars and silence, silence reft of winds, yet alive with the tense immobility of the crouching beast, waiting ... waiting....
The desert, impassively withering him to the shell of a man, or wracking him terribly in heat or in storm and cold, still cajoled him day and night with promises, whispered, vague and intoxicating as the perfume of a woman's hair.
Finally the desert flung wide the secret portals of her treasure-house and gave royally like a courtesan of kings.
The man, his dream all but fulfilled, found the taste of awakening bitter on his lips. He counted his years of toil and cursed as he viewed his shrunken hands, claw-like, scarred, crippled.
He felt the weight of his years and dreaded their accumulated burdens. He realized that the dream was all—its fulfillment nothing. He knew himself to be a thing to be pointed at; yet he longed for the sound of human voices, for the touch of human hands, for the living sweetness of his child's face. The sirens of the invisible night no longer whispered to him. He was utterly alone. He had entered his kingdom. Viewed from afar it had seemed a vast pleasure-dome of infinite enchantment. He found Success, as it ever shall be, a veritable desert, grudging man foothold, yet luring him from one aspiration to another, only to consume his years in dust.
A narrow canon held his secret. He had wandered into it, panned a little black sand, and found color. Finally he discovered the fountainhead of the hoarded yellow particles that spell Power. There in the fastness of those steep, purgatorial walls was the hermitage of the two voices—voices that no longer whispered of hope, but left him in the utter loneliness of possession and its birthright, Fear.
He cried aloud for the companionship of men—and glanced fearfully round lest man had heard him call.
He again journeyed to the town beside the railroad, bought supplies and vanished, a ragged wraith, on the horizon.
Back in the canon he set about his labors, finding a numbing solace in toil.
But at night he would think of the child's face. He had said to those with whom he had left the child that he would return with a fortune. They knew he went away to forget. They did not expect him to return. That had been ten years ago. He had written twice. Then he had drifted, always promising the inner voice that urged him that he would find gold for her, his child, that she might ever think kindly of him. So he tried to buy himself—with promises. Once he had been a man of his hands, a man who stood straight and faced the sun. Now the people of the desert town eyed him askance. He heard them say he was mad—that the desert had "got him." They were wrong. The desert and its secret was his—a sullen paramour, but his nevertheless. Had she not given him of her very heart?
He viewed his shrunken body, knew that he stooped and shuffled, realized that he had paid the inevitable, the inexorable price for the secret. His wine of dreams had evaporated.... He sifted the coarse gold between his fingers, letting it fall back into the pan. Was it for this that he had wasted his soul?
* * * * *
In the desert town men began to notice the regularity of his comings and goings. Two or three of them foregathered in the saloon and commented on it.
"He packed some dynamite last trip," asserted one.
There was a silence. The round clock behind the bar ticked loudly, ominously.
"Then he's struck it at last," said another.
"Mebby," commented the first speaker.
The third man nodded. Then came silence again and the absolute ticking of the clock. Presently from outside in the white heat of the road came the rush of hoofs and an abrupt stop. A spurred and booted rider, his swarthy face gray with dust, strode in, nodded to the group and called for whiskey.
"Which way did he go, Saunders?" asked one.
"North, as usual," said the rider.
"Let's set down," suggested the third man.
They shuffled to a table. The bartender brought glasses and a bottle. Then, uninvited, he pulled up a chair and sat with them. The rider looked at him pointedly.
"Oh, I'm in on this," asserted the bartender. "Daugherty is the Wells-Fargo man here. He won't talk to nobody but me—about business."
"What's that got to do with it?" queried the rider.
"Just what you'd notice, Saunders. Listen! The rat left a bag of dust in the Company's safe last trip. Daugherty says its worth mebby five hundred. He says the rat's goin' to bring in some more. Do I come in?"
"You're on," said the rider. "Now, see here, boys, we got to find out if he's filed on it yet, and what his name is, and then—"
"Mebby we'd better find out where it is first," suggested one.
"And then jump him?" queried the rider over his glass.
"And then jump him," chorused the group. "He's out there alone. It's easy." And each poured himself a drink, for which, strangely enough, no one offered to pay, and for which the bartender evidently forgot to collect.
Meanwhile the prospector toiled through the drought of that summer hoarding the little yellow flakes that he washed from the gravel in the canon.
All round him for miles each way the water-holes had gone dry. The little canon stream still wound down its shaded course, disappearing in a patch of sand at the canon's mouth, so the prospector felt secure. None had ridden out to look for him through that furnace of burning sand that stretched between the hills and the desert town.
The stream dwindled slowly, imperceptibly.
One morning the prospector noticed it, and immediately explored the creek clear to its source—a spurt of water springing from the roof of a grotto in the cliff. Such a supply, evidently from the rocky heart of the range itself, would be inexhaustible.
A week later he awoke to find the creek-bed dry save in a few depressions among the rocks. He again visited the grotto. The place was damp and cool, glistening with beads of moisture, but the flow from the roof-crevice had ceased. Still he thought there must be plenty of water beneath the rocks of the stream-bed. He would dig for it.
Another week, and he became uneasy. The stream had disappeared as though poured into a colossal crevice. A few feet below the gravel he struck solid rock. He tried dynamite unsuccessfully. Then he hoarded the drippings from the grotto crevice till he had filled his canteen. Carefully he stowed his gold in a chamois pouch and prepared to leave the canon. His burro had strayed during the week of drought—was probably dead beside some dry water-hole.
The prospector set out to cross the range in the light of the stars.
Fearful that he might be seen, panic warped his reasoning. He planned to journey south along the foothills, until opposite the desert town and then cross over to it. If he approached from such a direction, no one would guess his original starting-place. He knew of an unfailing water-hole two days' journey from the canon. This water-hole was far out of his way, but his canteen supply would more than last till he reached it.
Then Fate, the fate that had dogged his every step since first he ventured into the solitudes, closed up and crept at his heels. He became more morose and strangely fearful. His vision, refined by the wasting of his body, created shadows that lay about his feet like stagnant pools, shadows where no shadows should be.
Ominous was his fall as he crossed an arroyo. The canteen, slung over his shoulder, struck a sharp point of rock that started one of the seams. The leak was infinitesimal. The felt cover of the canteen absorbed the drip, which evaporated. When he arrived at the water-hole, that was dry. His canteen felt strangely light. He could not remember having used so much water. He changed his plan. He struck straight from the hills toward the railroad. He knew that eventually he would, as he journeyed west, cross it, perhaps near a water-tank.
Toward the blinding afternoon of that day he saw strange lakes and pools spread out upon the distant sand and inverted mountain ranges stretching to the horizon.
Fate crept closer to his heels, waiting with the dumb patience of the desert to claim the struggling, impotent puppet whose little day was all but spent.
He stumbled across the blazing bars of steel that marked the railroad. His empty canteen clattered on the ties as he fell. He got to his knees and dragged himself from the track. He laughed, for he had thwarted Fate this once; he would not be run over by the train. He lay limp, wasted, scarcely breathing.
Serenely Fate crouched near him, patient, impassive....
He heard a man speak and another answer. He felt an arm beneath his head, and water.... Water!
He drank, and all at once his strength flamed up. It was not water they gave him; it was merely the taste of it—a mockery. He wanted more ... all!
He lurched to his feet, struggling with a bearded giant that held him from his desire—to drink until he could drink no more—to die drinking the water they had taken from him even as they gave it. He fought blindly. Fate, disdaining further patience, arose and flung itself about his feet. He stumbled. A flash wiped all things from his vision and the long night came swiftly.
At the wide gate of the mountain ranch stood the girl. Her black saddle-pony Boyar fretted to be away. Glancing back through the cavernous shade of the live-oaks, the girl hesitated before opening the gate. A little breeze, wayfaring through Moonstone Canon and on up to the mountain ranch, touched the girl's cheek and she breathed deeply of its cool fragrance.
The wide gate swung open, and Louise Lacharme, curbing Black Boyar, rode out of the shadows into the hot light of the morning, singing as she rode.
Against the soft gray of the canon wall flamed a crimson flower like a pomegranate bud. Across the road ran the cool mountain stream. Away and away toward the empty sky the ragged edges of the cliffs were etched sharply upon the blue.
The road ran swiftly round the eastern wall of the canon. Louise, as fragrantly bright as morning sunshine on golden flowers, laughed as the pony's lithe bound tore the silver of the ford to swirling beads and blade-like flashes.
On the rise beyond, the girl drew rein at the beginning of the Old Meadow Trail, a hidden trail that led to a mountain meadow of ripe grasses, groups of trees, and the enchantment of seclusion.
The pony shouldered through the breast-high greasewood and picked his steps along the edge of the hill. The twigs and branches lisped and clattered against the carved leather tapaderos that hooded the stirrups. The warm sun awoke the wild fragrance of sage and mountain soil. Little lizards of the stones raced from Black Boyar's tread, becoming rigid on the sides of rocks, clinging at odd angles with heads slanted, like delicate Orient carvings in dull brass.
The girl's eyes, the color of sea-water in the sun, were leveled toward the distant hills across the San Fernando Valley. From her fingers dangled the long bridle-reins. Her lips were gently parted. Her gaze was the gaze of one who dreams in the daylight. And close in the hidden meadow crouched Romance, Romance ragged, unkempt, jocular....
Boyar first scented the wood-smoke. Louise noticed his forward-standing ears and his fidgeting. Immediately before her was the low rounded rock, a throne of dreams that she had graced before. From down the slope and almost hidden by the bulk of the rock, a little wand of smoke stood up in the windless air, to break at last into tiny shreds and curls of nothingness.
"It can't be much of a fire yet!" exclaimed Louise, forever watchful, as are all the hill-folk, for that dread, ungovernable red monster of destruction, a mountain fire. "It can't be much of a fire yet."
The pony Boyar, delicately scenting something more than wood-smoke, snorted and swerved. Louise dismounted and stepped hurriedly round the shoulder of the rock. A bristle-bearded face confronted her. "No, it ain't much of a fire yet, but our hired girl she joined a movin'-picture outfit, so us two he-things are doin' the best we can chasin' a breakfast." And the tramp, Overland Red, ragged, unkempt, jocular, rose from his knees beside a tiny blaze. He pulled a bleak flop of felt from his tangled hair in an over-accentuated bow of welcome.
"We offer you the freedom of the city, ma'am. Welcome to our midst, and kindly excuse appearances this morning. Our trunks got delayed in New York."
Unsmilingly the girl's level gray eyes studied the tramp's face. Then her glance swept him swiftly from bared head to rundown heel. "I was just making up my mind whether I'd stay and talk with you, or ask you to put out your fire and go somewhere else. But I think you are all right. Please put on your hat."
Overland Red's self-assurance shrunk a little. The girl's eyes were direct and fearless, yet not altogether unfriendly. He thought that deep within them dwelt a smile.
"You got my map all right," he said, a trifle more respectfully. "'Course we'll douse the fire when we duck out of here. But what do you think of Collie here, my pal? Is he all right?"
"Oh, he's only a boy," said Louise, glancing casually at the youth crouched above the fire.
The boy, a slim lad of sixteen or thereabout, flushed beneath the battered brim of his black felt hat. He watched the tomato-can coffee-pot intently. Louise could not see his face.
"Yes, Miss. I'm all right and so is he." And a humorous wistfulness crept into the tramp's eyes. "He's what you might call a changeling."
"Uhuh! Always changin' around from place to place—when you're young. Ain't that it?"
"Oh! And when you are older?" she queried, smiling.
Overland Red frowned. "Oh, then you're just a tramp, a Willie, a Bo, a Hobo."
He saw the girl's eyes harden a little. He spoke quickly, and, she imagined, truthfully. "I worked ten years for one outfit once, without a change. And I never knowed what it was to do a day's work out of the saddle. You know what that means."
Overland Red grinned. "Say! You was born in California, wasn't you?"
"Yes, of course."
"'Cause Mexico has been about the only place a puncher could work that long without doin' day labor on foot half the year. Yes, I been there. 'Course, now, I'm doin' high finance, and givin' advice to the young, and livin' on my income. And say, when it comes to real brain work, I'm the Most Exhausted Baked High Potentate, but I wouldn't do no mineral labor for nobody. If I can't work in the saddle, I don't work—that's all."
"Mineral labor? What, mining?" asked Louise.
"No, not mining. Jest mineral labor like Japs, or section-hands, or coachmen with bugs on their hats. Ain't the papers always speakin' of that kind as minerals?"
"Don't you mean menials?"
"Well, yes. It's all the same, anyway. I never do no hair-splittin' on words. Bein' a pote myself, it ain't necessary."
"A—a poet! Really?"
"Really and truly, and carry one and add five. I've roped a lot of po'try in my time, Miss. Say, are we campin' on your land?"
"No. This is government land, from here to our line up above—the Moonstone Rancho."
"The Moonstone Rancho?" queried Overland Red, breaking a twig and feeding the fire.
"Yes. It's named after the canon. But don't let me keep you from breakfast."
"Breakfast, eh? That's right! I almost forgot it, talkin' to you. Collie's got the coffee to boilin'. No, you ain't keepin' us from our breakfast any that you'd notice. It would take a whole reg'ment of Rurales to keep us from a breakfast if we seen one runnin' around loose without its pa or ma."
Louise Lacharme did not smile. This was too real. Here was adventure with no raconteur's glamour, no bookish gloss. Here was Romance. Romance unshaven, illiterate, with its coat off making coffee in a smoke-blackened tomato-can, but Romance nevertheless. That this romance should touch her life, Louise had not the faintest dream. She was alone ... but, pshaw! Boyar was grazing near, and besides, she was not really afraid of the men. She thought she rather liked them, or, more particularly, the boisterous one who had said his name was Overland Red.
The tramp gazed at her a moment before he lifted the tomato-can from the embers. "We know you won't join us, but we're goin' to give you the invite just the same. And we mean it. Ma'am, if you'll be so kind as to draw up your chair, us gents'll eat."
"Thank you!" said Louise, and Overland's face brightened at the good-fellowship in her voice. "Thank you both, but I've had breakfast."
She gazed at the solitary, bubbling, tomato-can coffee-pot of "second-edition" coffee. There was nothing else to grace the board, or rather rock. "I'll be right back," she said. "I'll just take off Boyar's bridle. Here, Boy!" she called. "You'll be able to eat better."
And she ran to the pony. From a saddle-pocket she took her own lunch of sandwiches and ripe olives wrapped in oiled paper. She delayed her return to loosen the forward cincha of the saddle and to find the little stock of cigarette-papers and tobacco that she carried for any chance rider of the Moonstone who might be without them.
Collie, the boy tramp, glanced up at Overland Red. "I guess she's gone," he said regretfully.
"You're nutty, Collie. She ain't the kind to sneak off after sayin' she's comin' back. I know a hoss and a real woman when I see 'em. I was raised in the West, myself."
The boy Collie was young, sensitive, and he had not been "raised in the West." He frowned. "Yes, you was raised in the West, and what you got to show for it?"
"Well, hear the kid!" exclaimed Overland. "Out of the mouth of babes and saplings! What have I got to show? What have I—! Wha—? Oh, you go chase a snake! I know a good hoss and a good woman when I see 'em, and I seen both together this morning."
"But what do she want with us bos?" asked the boy.
"S-s-h-h! Why, she's interested in me romantic past, of course. Ain't I the 'cute little gopher when it comes to the ladies? Fan me, Collie, and slow music and a beer for one. I'm some lady's-man, sister!"
"You're a bo, the same as me," said the boy.
"S-s-h-h! For the love of Pete, don't you handle that word 'bo' so careless. It's loaded. It has a jarrin' effect on ears unattenuated—er—meanin' ears that ain't keyed up to it, as the pote says. She's comin' back. Fold your napkin. Don't look so blame hungry! Ain't you got any style?"
"She's the prettiest girl I ever seen," said the boy, hastily swallowing his share of the hot, insipid coffee.
"Pretty?" whispered Overland, as Louise approached. "She's thoroughbred. Did you see them eyes? Afraid of nothin', and smilin' at what might dast to scare her. Not foolish, either. She's wise. And she's kind and laughin', and not ashamed to talk to us. That's thoroughbred."
Round the rock came Louise, the neat package of sandwiches in one hand. In the other was the tobacco and cigarette-papers. "I'm going to have my luncheon," she said. "If you won't object, I'll take a sandwich. There, I have mine. The rest are for you."
"We had our breakfast," said Overland quickly, "when you was talkin' to your pony."
Louise glanced at the empty tomato-can. "Well, I'll excuse you for not waiting for me, but I shall not excuse you from having luncheon with me. I made these sandwiches myself. Have one. They're really good."
"Oh!" groaned Overland, grimacing. "If I could curry up my language smooth, like that, I—I guess I'd get deaf listenin' to myself talk. You said that speech like takin' two turns round the bandstand tryin' to catch yourself, and then climbin' a post and steppin' on your own shoulders so you could see the parade down the street. Do you get that?" And he sighed heavily. "Say! These here sandwiches is great!"
"Will you have one?" asked Louise, gracefully proffering the olives.
"Seein' it's you. Thanks. I always take two. The second one for a chaser to kill the taste of the first. It's the only way to eat 'em—if you know where to stop. They do taste like somethin' you done and are sorry for afterwards, don't they?"
"Were you ever sorry for anything?" asked the boy, feeling a little piqued that he had been left out of the conversation.
"I was raised in the West, myself," growled the tramp, scowling. "But that's a good pony you got, Miss. That your saddle too?"
"You rope any?"
"A little. How did you know?"
"Rawhide cover to the saddle-horn is wore with a rope," said Overland, helping himself to a second sandwich.
Then the tramp and the girl, oblivious to everything else, discussed rawhide riatas as compared with the regular three-strand stock rope, or lariat,—center-fire, three quarter, and double rigs, swell forks and old Visalia trees, spade bits and "U" curbs,—neither willing, even lightly, to admit the other's superiority of chosen rig.
The boy Collie listened intently and a trifle jealously. Overland Red and the girl had found a common ground of interest that excluded him utterly. The boy itched for an excuse to make the girl speak to him, even look at him.
The sandwiches gone, Louise proffered Overland tobacco and papers. Actual tears stood in the ex-cowboy's eyes. "Smoke! Me?" he exclaimed. "I was dyin' for it. I'd do time for you!"
Then in that boyish spirit that never quite leaves the range-rider, Overland Red took the tobacco and papers and cleverly rolled a cigarette with one hand. In the other he held his battered felt hat. His eyes had a far-away look as he reached forward and lighted his cigarette at the fire. "I was settin' on a crazy bronc', holdin' his head up so he couldn't go to buckin'—outside a little old adobe down in Yuma, Arizona, then," he explained, glancing at the girl. "Did you ever drift away complete, like that, jest from some little old trick to make you dream?"
"ANY ROAD, AT ANY TIME, FOR ANYWHERE"
The boy Collie took the empty tomato-can and went for water with which to put out the fire.
Louise and Overland Red gazed silently at the youthful figure crossing the meadow. The same thought was in both their hearts—that the boy's chance in life was still ahead of him. Something of this was in the girl's level gray eyes as she asked, "Why did you come up here, so far from the town and the railroad?"
"We generally don't," replied Overland Red. "We ain't broke. Collie's got some money. We got out of grub from comin' up here. We come up to see the scenery. I ain't kiddin'; we sure did! 'Course, speakin' in general, a free lunch looks better to me any day than the Yosemite—but that's because I need the lunch. You got to be fed up to it to enjoy scenery. Now, on the road we're lookin' at lots of it every day, but we ain't seein' much. But give me a good feed and turn me loose in the Big Show Pasture where the Bridal Veil is weepin' jealous of the Cathedral Spires, and the Big Trees is too big to be jealous of anything, where Adam would 'a' felt old the day he was born—jest take off my hobbles and turn me out to graze there, and feed, and say, lady, I scorn the idea of doin' anything but decomposin' my feelin's and smokin' and writin' po'try. I been there! There's where I writ the song called 'Beat It, Bo.' Mebby you heard of it."
"No, I should like to hear it."
The fire steamed and spluttered as Collie extinguished it. Overland Red handed the tobacco and papers to him.
"About comin' up this here trail?" he resumed as the boy stretched beside them on the warm earth. "Well, Miss, it was four years ago that I picked up Collie here at Albuquerque. His pa died sudden and left the kid to find out what a hard map this ole world is. We been across, from Frisco to New York, twice since then, and from Seattle to San Diego on the side, and 'most everywhere in California, it bein' my native State and the best of the lot. You see, Collie, he's gettin' what you might call a liberated education, full of big ideas—no dinky stuff. Yes, I picked him up at Albuquerque, a half-starved, skinny little cuss that was cryin' and beggin' me to get him out of there."
"Albuquerque?" queried Louise.
"Uhuh. Later, comin' acrost the Mojave, we got thrun off a freight by mistake for a couple of sewin'-machines that we was ridin' with to Barstow, so the tickets on the crates said. That was near Daggett, by a water-tank. It was hotter than settin' on a stove in Death Valley at 12 o'clock Sunday noon. We beat it for the next town, afoot. Collie commenced to give out. He was pretty tender and not strong. I lugged him some and he walked some. He was talkin' of green grass and cucumbers in the ice-box and ice-cream and home and the Maumee River, and a whole lot of things you can't find in the desert. Well, I got him to his feet next mornin'. We had some trouble, and was detained a spell in Barstow after that. They couldn't prove nothin', so they let us go. Then Collie got to talkin' again about a California road that wiggled up a hill and through a canon, and had one of these here ole Mission bells where it lit off for the sky-ranch. Funny, for he was never in California then. Mebby it was the old post-card he got at Albuquerque. You see his pa bought it for him 'cause he wanted it. He was only a kid then. Collie, he says it's the only thing his pa ever did buy for him, and so he kept it till it was about wore out from lookin' at it. But considerin' how his pa acted, I guess that was about all Collie needed to remember him by. Anyhow, he dreamed of that road, and told me so much about it that I got to lookin' for it too. I knowed of the old El Camino Real and the bells, so we kept our eye peeled for that particular dream road, kind of for fun. We found her yesterday."
"What, this? The road to our ranch?"
"Uhuh. Collie, he said so the minute we got in that canon, Moonstone Canon, you said. We're restin' up and enjoyin' the scenery. We need the rest, for only last week we resigned from doin' a stunt in a movin'-picture outfit. They wanted somebody to do native sons. We said we didn't have them kind of clothes, but the foreman of the outfit says we'd do fine jest as we was. It was fierce—and, believe me, lady, I been through some! I been through some!
"They was two others in checker clothes and dip-lid caps, and they wasn't native sons. They acted like sons of—I'd hate to tell you what, Miss—to the chief dollie in the show. They stole her beau and tied him to the S. P. tracks; kind of loose, though. She didn't seem to care. She jest stood around chewin' gum and rollin' her lamps at the head guy. Then the movin'-picture express, which was a retired switch-engine hooked onto a Swede observation car, backs down on Adolphus, and we was to rush up like—pretty fast, and save his life.
"She was a sassy little chicken with blond feathers and a three-quarter rig skirt. She had a regular strawberry-ice-cream-soda complexion, and her eyes looked like a couple of glass alleys with electric lights in 'em. I wondered if she took 'em out at night to go to sleep or only switched off the current. Anyhow, up she rides in a big reddish kind of automobile and twists her hands round her wrists and looks up the track and down the track and sees us and says, 'Oh, w'ich way has he went? W'ich way did Disgustus Adolphus beat it to?' And chewin' gum right on top of that, too. It was tough on us, Miss, but we needed the money.
"'Bout the eighteenth time she comes coughin' up in that old one-lung machine,—to get her expression right, so the boss kept hollerin',—why, I gets sick and tired. If there's anything doin', why, I'm game, but such monkeyin'! There was that picture-machine idiot workin' the crank as if he was shellin' a thicket-full of Injuns with a Gatling, and his fool cap turned round with the lid down the back of his neck, and me and Collie, the only sensible-actin' ones of the lot, because we was actin' natural, jest restin'. I got sick and tired. The next time up coughs that crippled-up automobile with the mumps on its front tire, and she says, 'Where, oh, where has he went?' I ups and says, 'Crazy, Miss, and can you blame him?'
"She didn't see no joke in that, so the boss he fired us. He wasn't goin' to pay us at that, but I picks up the little picture-machine box and I swings her up over the track kind of suggestive like. 'One!' said I. 'Do we get our money?'
"'Drop that machine!' says he, rushin' up to me.
"'I'm a-goin' to,' says I, 'good and hard. Think again, while I count. Do we get our money?'
"'You get pinched!' says he.
"'Two,' says I, and I swings the box up by the legs.
"'Hole on!' yells the boss. 'Pay the mutt, Jimmy, and, for Gord sake, get that machine before he ruins the best reel we made yet!'
"We got paid."
"But the bell and Moonstone Canon?" questioned Louise, glancing back at Boyar grazing down the meadow.
"Sure! Well, we flopped near here that night—"
"Uhuh. Let's see, you ain't hep to that, are you? Why, we crawled to the hay, hit the feathers, pounded our ear—er—went to bed! That's what it used to be. Well, in the morning, me and Collie got some sardines and crackers to the store and a little coffee. It was goin' over there that we seen the bell and the road and the whole works. I got kind of interested myself in that canon. I never saw so many moonstones layin' right on top the gravel, and I been in Mex., too. We liked it and we stayed over last night, expectin' to be gone by now."
"And when you leave here?" queried Louise.
"Same old thing," replied Overland cheerfully. "I know the ropes. Collie works by spells. Oh, we're livin', and that's all you need to do in California."
"And that is all—now that you have found the road?"
"Oh, the road is like all of them dreams," said Overland. "Such things are good for keepin' people interested in somethin' till it's done, that's all. It was fun at first, lookin' up every arroyo and slit in the hills, till we found it. Same as them marriages on the desert, after that."
"Uhuh. Seein' water what ain't there, like."
"Oh, mirages!" And Louise laughed joyfully.
"I don't see no joke," said Overland, aggrieved.
"I really beg your pardon."
"That's all right, Miss. But what would you call it?"
"Oh, an illusion, a mirage, something that seems to be, but that is not."
"I don't see where it's got anything on marriages, then, do you? But I ain't generally peppermistic. I believe in folks and things, although I'm old enough to know better."
"I'm glad you believe in folks," said Louise. "So do I."
"It's account of bein' a pote, I guess," sighed the tramp. "'Course I ain't a professional. They got to have a license. I never took out one, not havin' the money. Anyway, if I did have enough money for a regular license, I'd start a saloon and live respectable."
"Won't you quote something?" And the girl smiled bewitchingly. "Boyar and I must go soon. It's getting hot."
"I'm mighty sorry you're goin', Miss. You're real California stock. Knowed it the minute I set eyes on you. Besides, you passed us the smokes."
"Red, you shut up!"
Overland turned a blue, astonished eye on Collie. "Why, kiddo, what's bitin' you?"
"Because the lady give us the makings don't say she smokes, does it?"
Overland grunted. "Because you're foolish with the heat, don't say I am, does it? Them sandwiches has gone to your head, Chico. Who said she did smoke?"
Louise, grave-eyed, watched the two men, Overland sullen and scowling, Collie fierce and flaming.
"We ain't used to—to real ladies," apologized Overland. "We could do better if we practiced up."
"Of course!" said Louise, smiling. "But the poetry."
"U-m-m, yes. The po'try. What'll I give her, Collie?"
"I don't care," replied the boy. "You might try 'Casey Jones.' It's better'n anything you ever wrote."
"That? I guess not! That ain't her style. I mean one of my own—somethin' good."
"Oh, I don't know. 'Toledo Blake,'" mumbled Collie.
"Nope! But I guess the 'Grand Old Privilege' will do for a starter."
"Oh, good!" And Louise clapped her hands. "The title is splendid. Is the poem original?"
The tramp bowed a trifle haughtily. "Original? Me life's work, lady." And he awkwardly essayed to button a buttonless coat, coughed, waved his half-consumed cigarette toward the skies, and began:—
"Folks say we got no morals—that they all fell in the soup; And no conscience—so the would-be goodies say; And I guess our good intentions did jest up and flew the coop, While we stood around and watched 'em fade away.
"But there's one thing that we're lovin' more than money, grub, or booze, Or even decent folks that speaks us fair; And that's the Grand Old Privilege to chuck our luck and choose, Any road at any time for any where."
And Overland, his hand above his heart, bowed effusively.
"I like 'would-be goodies,'" said Louise. "Sounds just like a mussy, sticky cookie that's too sweet. And 'Any road at any time for any where—' I think that is real."
Overland puffed his chest and cleared his throat. "I can't help it, Miss. Born that way. Cut my first tooth on a book of pomes ma got for a premium with Mustang Liniment."
"Well, thank you." And Louise nodded gayly. "Keep the tobacco and papers to remember me by. I must go."
"We don't need them to remember you by," said Overland gallantly. Then the smile suddenly left his face.
Down the Old Meadow Trail, unseen by the girl and the boy, rode a single horseman, and something at his hip glinted in the sun. Overland's hand went to his own hip. Then he shrugged his shoulders, and slowly recovered himself. "What's the use?" he muttered.
But there was that in his tone which brought Collie's head up. The lad pushed back his battered felt hat and ran his fingers through his wavy black hair, perplexedly. "What's the matter, Red? What's the matter?"
"Nothin'. Jest thinkin'." Yet the tramp's eyes narrowed as he glanced furtively past the girl to where Boyar, the black pony, grazed in the meadow.
Louise, puzzled by something familiar in the boy's upturned, questioning face, raised one gauntleted hand to her lips. "Why, you're the boy I saw, out on the desert, two years ago. Weren't you lying by a water-tank when our train stopped and a man was kneeling beside you pouring water on your face? Aren't you that boy?"
"Yes!" exclaimed Collie, getting to his feet. "Red told me about you, too."
"Yes, it's her," muttered Overland, nodding to himself.
"And you chucked a rose out of the window to us?" said the boy. "Overland said she did."
"Yes. It's her, the Rose-Lady Girl," said Overland. "Some of the folks in the train laughed when I picked up the rose. I remember. Some one else says, 'They're only tramps.' I recollect that, too."
"But those men were arrested at Barstow, for murder, Uncle Walter said."
Again Overland Red nodded. "They was, Miss. But they couldn't prove nothin', so they let us go."
"We always was goin' to say thanks to the girl with the rose if we ever seen her," said the boy Collie. "We ain't had such a lot of roses give to us."
"So we says it now," said Overland quickly. "Or mebby we wouldn't never have another chance." Then he slowly rolled another cigarette.
Just then the black pony Boyar nickered. He recognized a friend entering the meadow.
Overland lighted his cigarette. As he straightened up, Louise was surprised to see him thrust both hands above his head while he continued smoking placidly. "Excuse me, Miss," he said, turning the cigarette round with his lips; "but the gent behind you with the gun has got the drop on me. I guess he's waitin' for you to step out of range."
Louise turned swiftly. Dick Tenlow, deputy sheriff, nodded good-morning to her, but kept his gun trained on the tramp.
"Just step out from behind that rock," said Tenlow, addressing Overland.
"Don't know as I will," replied the tramp. "You're no gentleman; you didn't say 'please.'"
"Come on! No bluff like that goes here," said the deputy.
"Can't you see I ain't finished smokin' yet?" queried Overland.
"Come on! Step along!"
"No way to address a gent, you Johnny. Say, I'll tell you now before you fall down and shoot yourself. Do you think you got me because you rode up while I was talkin' to a lady, and butted into polite conversation like a drunk Swede at a dance? Say, you think I'd 'a' ever let you got this far if there hadn't been a lady present? Why, you little nickle-plated, rubber-eared policeman, I was doin' the double roll with a pair of Colts .45's when you was learnin' the taste of milk!"
"That'll be about all for you," said the sheriff, grinning.
"No, it ain't. You ain't takin' me serious, and there's where you're makin' your mistake. I'm touchy about some things, Mr. Pussy-foot. I could 'a' got you three times while you was ridin' down that trail, and I wouldn't 'a' had to stop talkin' to do it. And you with that little old gun out before you even seen me!"
"Why didn't you, then?" asked Tenlow, restraining his anger; for Louise, in spite of herself, had smiled at Overland's somewhat picturesque resentment. "Why didn't you, then?"
"Huh!" snorted Overland scornfully. "Do you suppose I'd start anything with a lady around? That ain't my style. You're a kid. You'll get hurt some day."
Deputy Tenlow scowled. He was a big man, slow of tongue, ordinarily genial, and proverbially stupid. He knew the tramp was endeavoring to anger him. The deputy turned to Louise. "Sorry, Miss Lacharme, but I got to take him."
"There's really nothing to hinder, is there?" Louise asked sweetly.
"CAN HE RIDE?"
The tramp glanced up, addressing the deputy. "Yes, even now there is something to hinder, if I was to get busy." Then he coolly dropped his arms and leaned against the rock with one leg crossed before the other in a manner sometimes supposed to reflect social ease and elegance. "But I'm game to take what's comin'. If you'll just stick me up and extract the .38 automatic I'm packin' on my hip,—and, believe me, she's a bad Gat. when she's in action,—why, I'll feel lots better. The little gun might get to shootin' by herself, and then somebody would get hurt sure. You see, I'm givin' you all the chance you want to take me without gettin' mussed up. I'm nervous about firearms, anyhow."
Deputy Dick Tenlow advanced and secured the gun.
"Now," said Overland Red, heaving a sigh; "now, I ain't ashamed to look a gun in the face. You see, Miss," he added, turning to address the girl, "I was sheriff of Abilene once, in the ole red-eye, rumpus days. I have planted some citizens in my time. You see, I kind of owe the ones I did plant a silent apology for lettin' this here chicken-rancher get me so easy."
"You talk big," said Tenlow, laughing. "Who was you when you was sheriff of Abilene, eh?"
"Jack Summers, sometimes called Red Jack Summers," replied Overland quietly, and he looked the deputy in the eye.
Overland nodded. "Take it or leave it. You'll find out some day. And now you got some excuse for packin' a gun round these here peaceful hills and valleys the rest of your life. You took Jack Summers, and there ain't goin' to be a funeral."
Something about the tramp's manner inclined the deputy to believe that he had spoken truth. "All right," said Tenlow; "just step ahead. Don't try the brush or I'll drop you."
"'Course you would," said Overland, stepping ahead of the deputy's pony. "But the bunch you're takin' orders from don't want me dead; they want me alive. I ain't no good all shot up. You ought to know that."
"I know there's a thousand dollars reward for you. I need the money."
Overland Red grinned. "It's against me morals to bet—with kids. But I'll put up that little automatic you frisked off me, against the thousand you expect to get, that you don't even get a long-range smell of that money. Are you on?"
Tenlow motioned the other to step ahead.
"I'm bettin' my little gun to a thousand dollars less than nothin'. Ain't you game? I'm givin' you the long end."
"Never mind," growled Tenlow. "You can talk later."
The boy Collie, recovering from his surprise at the arrest, stepped up to the sheriff. "Where do I come in?" he asked. "You can't pinch Red without me. I was with him that time the guy croaked out on the Mojave. Red didn't kill him. They let us go once. What you doin' pinchin' us again? How do you know—"
"Hold on, Collie; don't get careless," said Overland. "He don't know nothin'. He's followin' orders. The game's up."
Louise whistled Boyar to her and bridled him. The little group ahead seemed to be waiting for her. She led the pony toward the trail. "Did he do it?" she asked as she caught up with Collie.
"No," he muttered. "Red's the squarest pal on earth. Red tried to save the guy—out there on the desert. Gave him all the water we had, pretty near. He dassent to give him all, for because he was afraid it would kill him. The guy fell and hit his head on the rail. Red said he was dyin' on his feet, anyway. Then Red lugged me clean to that tank where you seen us from the train. I was all in. I guess Red saved my life. He didn't tell you that."
"Is he—was he really a cowboy? Can he ride?" asked Louise.
"Can he ride? Say, I seen him ride Cyclone once and get first money for ridin' the worst buckin' bronc' at the rodeo, over to Tucson. Well, I guess!"
"Boyar, my pony, is the fastest pony in the hills," said Louise pensively.
"What you givin' us?" said the boy, glancing at her sharply.
"Nothing. I was merely imagining something."
"Red's square," asserted the boy.
"Sheriff Tenlow is a splendid shot," murmured Louise, with apparent irrelevance.
They had crossed the meadow. Ahead of the sheriff walked Overland, his slouch gone, his head carried high. Collie noted this unusual alertness of poise and wondered.
"Don't try the brush," cautioned Tenlow, also aware of Overland's alertness.
"When I leave here, I'll ride. Sabe?" And Overland stepped briskly to the trail, turning his back squarely on the alert and puzzled sheriff.
"He's been raised in these hills," muttered the tramp. "He knows the trails. I don't. But—I'd like to show that little Rose-Lady Girl some real ridin' once. She's a sport. I'd ride into hell and rake out the fire for her.... I hate to—to do it—but I guess I got to."
"Step up there," said Tenlow. "What you talkin' about, anyhow?"
"Angels," replied Overland. "I see 'em once in a while." And he glanced back. He saw Collie talking to the girl, who stood by her pony, the reins dangling lightly from her outstretched hand.
"Snake!" screamed Overland Red, leaping backward and flinging up his arms, directly in the face of the deputy's pony. The horse reared. Overland, crouching, sprang under its belly, striking it as he went. Again the pony reared, nearly throwing the deputy.
"Overland Limited!" shouted the tramp, dashing toward Boyar. With a spring he was in the saddle and had slipped the quirt from the saddle-horn to his wrist. He would need that quirt, as he had no spurs.
Round swung Tenlow, cursing. Black Boyar shot across the meadow, the quirt falling at each jump. The tramp glanced back. Tenlow's right hand went up and his gun roared once, twice....
The boy Collie, white and gasping, threw himself in front of Tenlow's horse. The deputy spurred the pony over him and swept down the meadow.
Louise, angered in that the boy had snatched Boyar's reins from her as Overland shouted, relented as she saw the instant bravery in the lad's endeavor to stop Tenlow's horse. She stooped over him. He rose stiffly.
"Oh! I thought you were hurt!" she exclaimed.
"Nope! I guess not. I was scared, I guess. Let's watch 'em, Miss!" And forgetful of his bruised and shaken body, he limped to the edge of the meadow, followed by Louise. "There they go!" he cried. "Red's 'way ahead. The sheriff gent can't shoot again—he's too busy ridin'."
"Boyar! Boyar! Good horse! Good horse!" cried the girl as the black pony flashed across the steep slope of the ragged mountain side like a winged thing. "Boyar! Boy!"
She shivered as the loose shale, ploughed by the pony's flying hoofs, slithered down the slope at every plunge.
"Can he ride?" shouted Collie, wild tears of joy in his eyes.
Suddenly Overland, glancing back, saw Tenlow stop and raise his arm. The tramp cowboy swung Black Boyar half-round, and driving his unspurred heels into the pony's ribs, put him straight down the terrific slope of the mountain at a run.
Tenlow's gun cracked. A spray of dust rose instantly ahead of Boyar.
"Look! Look!" cried Louise. The deputy, angered out of his usual judgment, spurred his horse directly down the footless shale that the tramp had ridden across diagonally. "Look! He can't—The horse—! Oh!" she groaned as Tenlow's pony stumbled and all but pitched headlong. "The other man—knew better than that—" she gasped, turning to the boy. "He waited—till he struck rock and brush before he turned Boyar."
"Can he ride?" shouted Collie, grinning. But the grin died to a gasp. A burst of shale and dust shot up from the hillside. They saw the flash of the cinchas on the belly of Tenlow's horse as the dauntless pony stumbled and dove headlong down the slope, rolling over and over, to stop finally—a patch of brown, shapeless, quivering.
Below, Overland Red had curbed Boyar and was gazing up at a spot of black on the hillside—Dick Tenlow, motionless, silent. His sombrero lay several yards down the slope.
"Oh! The horse!" cried Louise, chokingly, with her hand to her breast.
As for Dick Tenlow, lying halfway down the hillside, stunned and shattered, she had but a secondary sympathy. He had sacrificed a gallant and willing beast to his anger. The tramp, riding a strange pony over desperately perilous and unfamiliar ground, had used judgment. "Your friend is a man!" she said, turning to the boy. "But Dick Tenlow is hurt—perhaps killed. He went under the horse when it fell."
"I guess it's up to us to see if the sheriff gent is done for, at that," said the boy. "Mebby we can do something."
"You'll get arrested, now," said the girl. "If Dick Tenlow is alive, you'll have to go for help. If he isn't...."
"I'll go, all right. I ain't afraid. I didn't do anything. I guess I'll stick around till Red shows up again, anyhow."
"You're a stranger here. I should go as soon as you have sent help," said the girl.
"Mebby I better. I'll help get him up the hill and in the shade. Then I'll beat it for the doc. If I don't come back after that," he said slowly, flushing, "it ain't because I'm scared of anything I done."
* * * * *
Far down in the valley Boyar's sweating sides glistened in the sun. An arm was raised in a gesture of farewell as the tramp swung the pony toward the town. Much to her surprise, Louise found herself waving a vigorous adieu to the distant figure.
The tramp Overland, realizing that the deputy was badly injured, told the first person he met about the accident, advising him to get help at once for the deputy. Then he turned the pony toward the foothills. In a clump of greasewood he dismounted, and, leaving the reins hanging to the saddle-horn, struck Black Boyar on the flank. The horse leaped toward the Moonstone Trail. The tramp disappeared in the brush.
Louise Lacharme, more beautiful than roses, strolled across the vine-shadowed porch of the big ranch-house and sat on the porch rail opposite her uncle. His clear blue eyes twinkled approval as he gazed at her.
Walter Stone was fifty, but the fifty of the hard-riding optimist of the great outdoors. The smooth tan of his cheeks contrasted oddly with the silver of his close-cropped hair. He appeared as a young man prematurely gray.
"How is Boyar?" he asked, smiling a little as Louise, sitting sideways on the porch-rail, swung her foot back and forth quickly.
"Oh, Boy is all right. The tramp turned him loose in the valley. Boy came home."
"It was a clever bit of riding, to get the best of Tenlow on his own range. Was Dick very badly hurt?" queried Walter Stone.
"Yes, his collar-bone was broken and he was crushed and terribly bruised. His horse was killed. When I was down, day before yesterday, the doctor said Dick would be all right in time."
"How about this boy, the tramp boy they arrested?"
"Oh," said Louise, "that was a shame! He stayed and helped the doctor put Dick in the buggy and rode with him to town. Mr. Tenlow was unconscious, and the boy had to go to hold him. Then the boy explained it all at the store, and they arrested him anyway, as a suspicious character. I should have let him go. When Mr. Tenlow became conscious and they told him they had the boy, he said to keep him in the calaboose; that that was where he belonged."
"And you want me to see what I can do for this boy?"
"I didn't say so." And Louise tilted her chin.
"Now, sweetheart, don't quibble. It isn't like you."
The gray silk-clad ankle flashed back and forth. "Really, Uncle Walter, you could have done something for the boy without making me say that I wanted you to. You're always doing something nice—helping people that are in trouble. You don't usually have to be asked."
"Perhaps I like to be asked—by—Louise."
"You're just flattering me, I know! But uncle, if you had seen the boy jump in front of Mr. Tenlow's horse when Dick shot at the tramp,—and afterwards when the boy helped me with Dick and stuck right to him clear to his house,—why, you couldn't help but admire him. Then they arrested him—for what? It's a shame! I told him to run when I saw the doctor's buggy coming."
"Yes, Louise; the boy may be brave and likable enough, but how are we to know what he really is? I don't like to take the risk. I don't like to meddle in such affairs."
"Uncle Walter! Risk! And the risks you used to take when you were a young man. Oh, Aunty Eleanor has told me all about your riding bronchos and the Panamint—and lots of things. I won't tell you all, for you'd be flattered to pieces, and I want you in one whole lump to-day."
"Only for to-day, Louise?"
"Oh, maybe for to-morrow, and to-morrow and to-morrow. But, uncle, only last week you said at breakfast that the present system of arrest and imprisonment was all wrong. That was because they arrested that editor who was a friend of yours. But now, when you have a chance to prove that you were in earnest, you don't seem a bit interested."
"Did I really say all that, sweetness?"
"Now you are quibbling. And does 'sweetness,' mean me, or what you said at breakfast? Because you said 'the whole damn system'; and there were two ladies at the table. Of course, that was before breakfast. After breakfast you picked a rose for aunty, and kissed me."
Walter Stone laughed heartily. "But I do take a great deal of interest in anything that interests you."
Louise slipped lithely from the porch-rail and swung up on the broad arm of his chair, snuggling against him impetuously. "I know you do, uncle. I just love you! I'll stop teasing."
"I surrender. I'm a pretty fair soldier at long range, but this"—and his arm went round her affectionately—"this is utter defeat. I strike my colors. Then, you always give in so gracefully."
"To you, perhaps, Uncle Walter. But I haven't given in this time. I'm just as interested as ever."
"And you think they are the men we saw out on the Mojave by the water-tank?"
"Oh, I know it! They remembered the rose. They spoke of it right away, before I did."
"Yes, Louise. And you remember, too, that they were arrested at Barstow—for murder, the conductor said?"
"That's just it! The boy Collie says the tramp Overland Red didn't kill the man. He was trying to save him and gave him water. If you could only hear what the boy says about it—"
"I don't suppose it would do any harm," said the rancher. "I dislike to use my influence. You know, I practically control Dick Tenlow's place at the elections."
"That's just why he should be willing to let the boy go," said Louise quickly.
"No, sweetheart. That's just why I shouldn't ask Dick to do anything of the kind. But I see I'm in for it. You have already interested your Aunt Eleanor. She spoke to me about the boy last night."
"Aunty Eleanor is a dear. I didn't really ask her to speak to you."
"No," he said, laughing. "Of course not. You're too clever for that. You simply sow your poppy-seed and leave it alone. The poppies come up fast enough."
Louise laughed softly. "You're pretending to criticize and you're really flattering,—deliberately,—aren't you, Uncle Walter?"
"Flattering? And you?"
"Because Aunt Eleanor said you could be simply irresistible when you wanted to be. I think so, too. Especially when you are on a horse."
"Naturally. I always did feel more confident in the saddle. I could, if need arose, ride away like the chap in Bobby Burns's verse, you remember—
"He gave his bridle-rein a shake, And turned him on the shore, With, 'Farewell, forever more, my dear, Farewell, forever more.'"
"But you didn't, uncle. Aunty said she used to be almost afraid that you'd ride away with her, like Lochinvar."
"Yes." And Walter Stone sighed deeply.
"Oh, Uncle Walter! That sounded full of regrets and things."
"It was. It is. I'm fifty."
"It isn't fifty. It's a lack of exercise. And you wouldn't be half so fine-looking if you were fat. I always sigh when I don't know what to do. Then I just saddle Boy and ride. And I'll never let myself get fat."
"A vow is a vow—at sixteen."
"Now I know you need exercise. You're getting reminiscent, and that's a sign of torpid liver."
Walter Stone laughed till the tears came. "Exercise!" he exclaimed. "Ah! I begin to divine a subtle method in your doctrine of health. Ah, ha! I look well on a horse! I need exercise! It's a very satisfactory ride from here to town and back. Incidentally, Louise, I smell a rat. I used to be able to hold my own."
"It isn't my fault if you don't now," said Louise, snuggling in his arm.
"That's unworthy of you!" he growled, his arm tightening round her slim young figure. "Tell me, sweetheart; how is it that you can be so thoroughly practical and so unfathomably romantic in the same breath? You have deliberately shattered me to bits that you might mould me nearer to your heart's desire. And your heart's desire, just now, is to help an unknown, a tramp, out of jail."
Louise pouted. "You say 'just now' as though my heart's desires weren't very serious matters as a rule. You know you wouldn't be half so happy if I didn't tease you for something at least once a week. I remember once I didn't ask you for anything for a whole week, and you went and asked Aunty Eleanor if I were ill. Besides, the boy needs help, whether he did anything wrong or not. Can't you understand?"
"That's utopian, Louise, but it isn't generally practicable."
"Then make it individually practicable, uncle—just this time. Pshaw! I don't believe you're half-trying to argue. Why, when Boyar bucked you off that time and ran into the barb-wire, then he didn't need doctoring for that awful cut on his shoulder, because he had done wrong."
"That is no parallel, Louise. Boyar didn't know any better. And this boy is not sick or injured."
"How do you know that? He's down in that terribly hot, smelly jail. If he did get sick, who would know it?"
"And Boyar isn't a human being. He can't reason."
"Oh, Uncle Walter! I thought you knew horses better than that. Boyar can reason much better than most people."
"The proof being that he prefers you to any one else?"
"No," replied Louise, smiling mischievously. "That isn't Boyar's reason; it's his affection. That's different."
"Yes, quite different," said Walter Stone. "Is this boy good-looking?" And the rancher fumbled in his pocket for a cigar.
Louise slipped from the arm of his chair and stood opposite him, her lips pouted teasingly, the young face glowing with mischief and fun. "Am I?" she asked, curtsying and twinkling. "'Cause if you're going to ride down to the valley to see the boy just because Beautiful asked you, Beautiful will go alone. But if you come because I want you,"—and Louise smiled bewitchingly,—"why, Beautiful will come too, and sing for you—perhaps."
"My heart, my service, and my future are at your feet, Senorita Louisa, my mouse. Are your eyes gray or green this morning?"
"Both," replied Louise quickly. "Green for spunk and gray for love. That's what Aunty Eleanor says."
"Come a little nearer. Let me see. No, they are quite gray now."
"'Cause why?" she cooed, and stooping, kissed him with warm, careless affection. "You always ask me about my eyes when you want me to kiss you. Of course, when you want to kiss me, why, you just come and take 'em."
"My esteemed privilege, sweetheart. I am your caballero."
"Did Aunty Eleanor?" said Louise.
But Walter Stone rose and straightened his shoulders. "That will do, mouse. I can't have any jealousy between my sweethearts."
"Never! And, Uncle Walter, do you want to ride Major or Rally? Rally and Boyar get along better together. I'll saddle Boy in a jiffy."
* * * * *
To ride some ten miles in the blazing sun of midsummer requires a kind of anticipatory fortitude, at fifty, especially when one's own vine and fig tree is cool and fragrant, embowered in blue flowers and graced by, let us say, Louise. And a cigar is always at its best when half-smoked. But when Louise came blithely leading the two saddle-ponies, Black Boyar and the big pinto Rally, Walter Stone shook an odd twenty years from his broad shoulders and swung into the saddle briskly.
From the shade of the great sycamore warders of the wide gate, he waved a gauntleted salute to Aunt Eleanor, who stood on the porch, drawing a leaf of the graceful moon-vine through her slender fingers. She nodded a smiling farewell.
Louise and her uncle rode as two lovers, their ponies close together. The girl swayed to Boyar's quick, swinging walk. Walter Stone sat the strong, tireless Rally with solid ease.
The girl, laughing happily at her triumph, leaned toward her escort teasingly, singing fragments of old Spanish love-songs, or talking with eager lips and sparkling eyes. Of a sudden she would assume a demureness, utterly bewitching in its veiled and perfect mimicry. Quite seriously he would set about to overcome this delightful mood of hers with extravagant vows of lifelong love and servitude, as though he were in truth her chosen caballero and she his Senorita of the Rose.
And as they played at love-making, hidden graces of the girl's sweet nature unfolded to him, and deep in his heart he wondered, and found life good, and Youth still unspoiled by the years, and Louise a veritable enchantress of infinite moods, each one adorable. Golden-haired, gray-eyed, quick with sympathy, sweetly subtle and subtly sweet was Louise.... And one must worship Youth and Beauty and Love, even with their passing bitter on one's lips.
But to Walter Stone no such bitterness had come, this soldierly, wise caballero escorting his adorable senorita on an errand of mercy. His was the heart of Youth, eternal and undaunted Youth. And Beauty was hers, of the spirit as well as of the flesh. And Love....
"Why, Louise! There are tears on your lashes, my colleen!"
"But I am singing, uncle." And she smiled through her tears.
"Yes, Uncle Walter?"
"What is it? Tell me."
"I wish I could. I don't know. I think I'm getting to be grown up—just like a woman. It—it makes me—think of lots of things. Let's ride." And her silver spurs flashed.
Boyar, taken quite by surprise, grunted as he leaped down the Moonstone Trail. He resented this undeserved punishment by plunging sideways across the road. Again came the flash of the silver spurs, and Walter Stone heard Louise disciplining the pony.
"Just a woman. Just like a woman," murmured the rancher. "Now, Boyar, and some others of us, will never quite understand what that means." And with rein and voice he lifted the pinto Rally to a lope.
THE GIRL WHO GLANCED BACK
At the crossroads in the valley stood the local jail, or "coop," as it was more descriptively called. Unpainted, isolated, its solitary ugliness lacked even the squalid dignity commonly associated with the word "jail." The sun pelted down upon its bleached, unshaded roof and sides. The burning air ran over its warped shingles like a kind of colorless fire.
The boy Collie, half-dreaming in the suffocating heat of the place, started to his feet as the door swung open. He had heard horses coming. They had stopped. He could hardly realize that the sunlight was swimming through the close dusk of the place. But the girl of Moonstone Canon, reining Boyar round, was real, and she smiled and nodded a greeting.
"This is Mr. Stone, my uncle," she said. "He wants to talk with you."
With a glance that noted each unlovely detail of the place, the broken iron bed, the cracked pitcher, and the unspeakable blankets, Louise touched her pony and was gone.
Collie rubbed his eyes, blinking in the sun as he stood gazing after her.
Walter Stone, standing near the doorway, noted the lad's clear, healthy skin, his well-shaped head with its tumble of wavy black hair, and the luminous dark eyes. He felt an instant sympathy for the boy, a sympathy that he masked with a business-like brusqueness. "Well, young man?"
"Come outside. It's vile in there."
Stone led his pony to the north side of the "coop."
Away to the west he saw the hazy peaks. A lake of burning air pulsed above the flat, hot floor of the valley. Over there lay the hills and the shade and the road.... Somewhere beyond was Overland, his friend, penniless, hunted, hungry....
"She brung you?" queried the boy.
"Yes. I have seen Tenlow, the sheriff. He is willing to let you go at my request. What do you intend doing, now that you are free?"
"I don' know. Find Red, I guess."
Walter Stone nodded. "What then?"
"Oh, stick it out with Red. They'll be after him sure now. Red's my pal."
"What has he done to get the police after him?"
"Nothin'. It's the bunch."
"Uhuh. Them guys out on the Mojave. But say, are you workin' me to get next to Red and get him pinched again?"
"No. You don't have to answer me. This man Red is nothing to me, one way or the other. He took Miss Lacharme's pony, but she has overlooked that. I thought, perhaps, you might care to explain your position. Perhaps you had rather not. You may go now if you wish."
"Is that straight?"
For several tense seconds the lad gazed at his questioner. Finally his gaze shifted to the hills. "I guess you're straight," he said presently. "I guess she wouldn't have you for a relation if you wasn't straight."
The elder man laughed. "That's right—she wouldn't, young man."
"How's the sheriff guy?" asked the boy.
"He's getting along well enough. What made you ask?"
"Oh, nothin'. I hate to see any guy get hurt."
"I'm glad to hear you say that. I begin to think you are a bigger man than he is."
"Me?" And Collie flushed, misunderstanding the other's drift. "I guess you're kiddin'."
"No, I mean it. Mr. Tenlow still seemed pretty hot about your share in this—er—enterprise. You seem to have no hard feelings against him."
"Huh! He shouldn't to be sore at me. I didn't spur no horse onto him and ride him down like a dog. I guess Red would 'a' killed him if he'd seen it. Say, nobody got Red, did they?"
"I haven't heard of it. How did this man Red come to pick you up? You're pretty young to be tramping."
"Cross your heart you ain't tryin' to queer Red? You ain't tryin' to put the Injun sign on us, are you?"
"No. I have heard all about the Mojave affair—the prospector that died on the track—and the arrest of Overland Red at Barstow. You told my niece that this Overland Red was 'square.' How did you come to be mixed up in it?"
"I guess I'll have to tell you the whole thing, straight. Red always said that to tell the truth was just as good as lyin', because nobody would believe us, anyway. And if a fella gets caught tellin' the truth, why, he's that much to the good."
"Well, I shall try and believe you this time," said Stone. "Miss Lacharme thinks you're honest."
"A guy couldn't lie to her!" said the boy.
"Then just consider me her representative," said Stone, smiling.
Collie squatted in the meager shade of the "coop."
Walter Stone, dropping the pony's reins, came and sat beside the lad. There was something in the older man's presence, an unspoken assurance of comradeship and sincerity that annulled the boy's tendency to reticence about himself. He began hesitatingly, "My dad was a drinkin' man. Ma died, and he got worse at it. I was a kid and didn't care, for he never done nothin' to me. We lived back East, over a pawnbroker's on Main Street. One day pa come home with a timetable. He sat up 'most all night readin' it. Every time I woke up, he was readin' it and talkin' to himself. That was after ma died.
"In the mornin', when I was gettin' dressed, he come over and says to take the needle he had and stick it through the timetable anywhere. I was scared he was goin' to have the jimmies. But I took the needle—it had black thread in it—and stuck it through the timetable. He opened the page and laughed awful loud and queer. Albuquerque was where the needle went in. He couldn't say the name right, but he kept lookin' at it.
"Then he went out and was gone all day and all night. When he come back he showed me a whole wad of money. I says, 'Where did you get it?' He got mad and tells me to shut up.
"That day we got on a train. I says, 'Where are we goin'?' and he says to never mind, and did I want some peanuts.
"We kept ridin' and ridin' in the same car, and eatin' bananas and san'wiches and sleepin' settin' up at nights. I was just about sick when we come to Albuquerque. You see, that was where the needle went through the timetable, and dad said we would get off there. He got awful drunk that night.
"Next day he said he was goin' to quit liquor and make a fresh start. I knowed he wouldn't, 'cause he always said that next mornin'. But I guess he tried to quit. I don't know.
"One night he didn't come back to the room where we was stayin' upstairs over the saloon. They found him 'way down the track next day, all cut to pieces by the train."
The boy paused, reached forward, and plucked a withered stem of grass which he wound round and round his finger.
Walter Stone sat looking across the valley.
"I guess his money was all gone," resumed the boy. "Anyhow, 'bout a year after, Overland Red comes along. He comes to the saloon where I was stayin',—they give me a job cleanin' out every day,—and he got to talkin' a lot of stuff about scenery and livin' the simple life, and all that guff. The bartender got to jawin' with him, and I laughed, and the bartender hits me a lick side the head. Red, he hits the bartender a lick side of his head—and the bartender don't get up right away. 'I'll learn him to hit kids,' said Red. 'If you learn him to hit 'em as hard as that,' I says to Red, 'then it will be all off with me the next time.'
"Does he hit you very often?' said Red.
"Whenever he feels like it,' I told him.
"Red laughed and said to come on. I was sick of there, so I run away with Red. We tried it on a freight and got put off. Red had some water in a canteen he swiped. It was lucky for us he did. We kept walkin' and goin' nights, and mebby ridin' on freights in the daytime if we could. One day, a long time after that, we was crossin' the desert again. We got put off a freight that time, too. We was walkin' along when we found a guy layin' beside the track. Red said he wasn't dead, but was dyin'. We give him some water. Then he kind of come to and wanted to drink it all. Red said, 'No.' Then the guy got kind of crazy. He got up and grabbed Red. I was scared.
"Red, he passed me the canteen and told me to keep it away from the guy because more water would kill him. Then the guy went for Red. 'He's dyin' on his feet,' said Red. 'It's his last flash.' And he tried to hold the guy quiet, talkin' decent to him all the time. They was staggerin' around when the guy tripped backwards over the rail. His head hit on the other rail and Red fell on top of him. Anyway, the guy was dead."
Walter Stone shifted his position, turning to gaze at the boy's white face. "Yes—go on," he said quietly.
"Red was for searchin' the guy, but I says to come on before we got caught. Red, he laughed kind of queer, and asked me, 'Caught at what?' Then I said, 'I dunno,' but I was scared.
"Anyway, he went through the dead guy's clothes and found some papers and old letters and a little leather bag with a whole lot of gold-dust in it. Red said mebby five hundred dollars!"
"Uhuh! Then Red was scared. He buried the bag and the papers 'way out in the sand and made a mark on the ties to find it by."
"Did you find out the dead man's name?" asked Stone, glancing curiously at the boy.
"Nope. We just beat it for the next station. I was feelin' sick. I give out, and Red, he lugged me to the next water-tank. He was pourin' water on me when the Limited come along and stopped, and she throwed the rose to us. Red told me about it after. You wouldn't go back on a pal like that, would you?"
"No, I don't know that I should."
"That's me!" said the boy. "Then they went to work and pinched us at Barstow. Said we killed the guy because his head was smashed in where he hit the rails. They tried to make Red say that he robbed the guy after killin' him. But Red told everything, except he didn't tell about the letters and the gold-dust. They tried to make me say it, but I dassent. I knowed they would fix Red sure if I did, and he told me not to tell about the gold if they did pinch us."
"They let you go—after the police examination. Then how is it that the authorities are after you again?"
"It's the bunch," replied the boy. "Them guys out there knowed the dead guy had a mine or a ledge or somethin' where he got the gold. Nobody was wise to where. They told at the jail how he used to come in once in a while and send his dust to Los Angeles by the express company. All them guys like the sheriff and the station agent and all the people in that town are workin' tryin' to find out where the gold come from. They think because Red and me is tramps that they can make us tell and arrest us whenever they like. But even Red don't know, unless it's in the papers he hid in the sand."
"That sounds like a pretty straight story," said Stone. "So you intend to stick to this man Red?"
"Sure! Would you quit him now, when they're after him worst?"
"They will get him finally."
"Mebby. But Red's pretty slick at a getaway. If they do pinch him again, that's where I come in. I'm the only witness and the only friend he's got."
"Of course. But don't you see, my boy, that your way of living is so much against you that you couldn't really help him? A man's naked word is worth just what his friends and neighbors will allow him for it, and no more."
"But ain't a guy got no rights in this country?"
"Certainly he has. But he has to prove that he is entitled to them, by his way of living."
"Then he's got to go to church, and work, and live decent, or he don't get a square deal, hey?"
"But why shouldn't he do that much?"
Collie did not answer. Instead, he inspected his questioner critically from head to foot. "I guess you're right," he said finally. "I've heard folks talk like that before, but I never took no stock. They kind of said it because they knowed it. I guess you say it because you mean it."
"Of course I do," said Stone heartily. "Well, here comes my niece with the mail. See! Over there is El Camino Real, running north. My ranch is up there, in the hills. My foreman's name is Williams. If you should ask him for work, I believe he might give you something to do. I heard him say he needed a man, not long ago."
Walter Stone cinched up the saddle and mounted his pony. The boy's eyes shone as he gazed at the strong, soldierly figure. Ah, to look like that, and ride a horse like that!
Boyar, the black pony, clattered up and stopped. "Hello, folks!" said Louise, purposely including the boy in her greeting.
Collie flushed happily. Then a bitterness grew in his heart as he thought of his friend Overland, hunted from town to town by the same law that protected these people—an unjust law that they observed and fostered.
"Well?" said Stone.
Collie's gaze was on the ground. "I don' know," he muttered. "I don' know."
"Well, good luck to you!" And the ponies swung into that philosophical lope of the Western horse who knows his journey's length.
The figures of the riders grew smaller. Still the boy stood in the road, watching them. Undecided, he gazed. Then came an answer to his stubborn self-questioning. Louise glanced back—glanced back for an instant in mute sympathy with his loneliness.
Slowly the boy turned and entered the jail. He folded his coat over his arm, stepped outside, and closed the door.
Before him stretched the hot gray level of El Camino Real, the road to the beyond. From it branched a narrower road, reaching up into the southern hills,—on, up to the mysterious Moonstone Canon with its singing stream and its gracious shade. Somewhere beyond, higher, and in the shadowy fastness of the great ranges lay the Moonstone Ranch ... her home.
"I guess, steppin' up smart, I'll be there just about in time for supper," said the boy. And whistling cheerily, he set his feet toward the south and the Moonstone Trail.
After a week of weeding in the vegetable garden, Collie was put to work repairing fence. There were many miles of it, inclosing some twenty thousand acres of grazing-land, and the cross-fencing of the oat, alfalfa, fruit, and vegetable acreage. The fence was forever in need of repair. The heavy winter rains, torrential in the mountains, often washed away entire hillsides, leaving a dozen or so staggering posts held together by the wires, tangled and sagging. Cattle frequently pulled loosened posts from the earth by kneeling under the wire and working through, oblivious to the barbs. Again, "stock gone a little loco" would often charge straight through the rigid and ripping wire barriers as though their strands were of thread. Posts would split in the sun, and staples would drop out, leaving sagging spaces which cattle never failed to find and take advantage of. Trees uprooted by the rain and wind would often fall across the fence.
Altogether, the maintaining of a serviceable fence-line on a well-ordered ranch necessitates eternal vigilance.
The Moonstone Rancho was well ordered under the direct supervision of Walter Stone's foreman, "Brand" Williams. Williams was a Wyoming cowman of the old school; taciturn, lean, sinewy.
Some ten years before, Williams, seeking employment, had ridden over the range with Stone. Returning, the cowman remarked disconsolately, "I like your stock, and I'll tie to you. But, say, it's only playin' at ranchin' on twenty thousand fenced. I was raised in Wyoming."
"All right," Stone had replied. "Play hard and we'll get along first-rate."
Every inch of Brand Williams's six feet was steeped in the astringent of experience. He played hard and prospered, as did his employer.
Collie stood awaiting the foreman's instructions.
"Ever mend fence?" asked Williams.
"Good. Then you can learn right. Go rope a cayuse—get some staples and that leetle axe in my office, and go to it. There's plenty fence."
The "Go rope a cayuse" momentarily staggered the boy, but he went silently to the corral, secured a riata, and by puzzling the playful ponies by his amateur tactics he finally entangled "Baldy," a white-faced cow-pony of peaceful mien but uncertain disposition.
Williams, watching the performance, lazily rolled a straw-paper cigarette.
Snubbed to the post, bridled and saddled awkwardly, Baldy gave no outward sign of his malignant inward intent of getting rid of the lad the minute he mounted.
Williams slowly drew a match across his sleeve from elbow to wrist, ending with a flame that was extremely convenient to his cigarette. He wasted no effort at anything. He was a man who never met a yawn halfway, but only gave in to it when actually obliged to. Collie climbed into the saddle and started for the corral gate. He arrived there far ahead of the horse. He got to his feet and brushed his knees. The pony was humping round the corral with marvelous agility for so old a horse.
"He never did like a left-handed man," said Williams gravely. "Next time get on him from the other side, and see if he don't behave. Hold on; don't be in a hurry. Let him throw a few more jumps, then he'll quit for to-day most likely. And say, son, if he does take to buckin' with you again, don't choke that saddle to death hangin' on to the horn. Set up straight, lean a little back, and clinch your knees. You'll get piled, anyhow, but you might as well start right."
The boy approached the horse again, secured the dangling reins, and again mounted. Baldy was as demure as a spinster in church. He actually looked pious.
Collie urged the pony toward the gate. Baldy reared.
"A spade bit ain't made to pull teeth with, although you can," said Williams. "Baldy's old, but his teeth are all good yet. Just easy now. Ride in your saddle, not on your reins. That's it! And say, kid, I would 'a' got them staples and that axe before crawlin' the hoss, eh?"
Collie flushed. He dismounted and walked to the foreman's office. When he returned to the corral, the horse was gone. Williams still sat on the corral bars smoking and gazing earnestly at nothing.
Round the corner of the stable Collie saw the pony, his nose peacefully submerged in the water-trough, but his eye wide and vigilant. The boy ran toward him. Baldy snorted and, wheeling, ran back into the corral, circled it with an expression which said plainly, "Let us play a little game of tag, in which, my young friend, you shall always be 'It.'"
Again Collie tried to rope the pony.
"Want any help?" asked Williams, as he slid from the corral bars to the ground.
"Nope." And Collie disentangled his legs from an amazing contortion of the riata and tried to whirl the loop as he had seen the cowmen whirl it.
"Hold on, son!" said Williams. "You mean right, but don't go to rope him with the saddle on. If you looped that horn, he, like as not, would yank you clean to Calabasas before you got your feet out of that mess of rope you're standin' in. Anyway, you ain't goin' to Calabasas; you're due up the other way."
Collie was learning things rapidly, and, better still, he was learning in a way that would cause him to remember.
Williams spoke sharply to the pony. Baldy stopped and eyed the foreman with vapid inquisitiveness. "Now, son, I got three things to tell you," and the foreman gathered up the reins. "First—keep on keepin' your mouth shut and tendin' to business. It pays. Second—always drop your reins over a hoss's head when you get off, whether he's trained that way or not. And last—always figure a hoss thinks he knows more than you do. Sometimes he does. Sometimes he don't. Then he won't fool you so frequent, for you'll be watchin' him. I wouldn't 'a' said that much, only you're a tenderfoot from the East, I hear. If you was a tenderfoot from the West, you would 'a' had to take your own medicine."